It could be a sequestered, slimy corner of any 21st century metropolis, the “small square yard where the trash bins were kept – the ones for the carbon garboil trash and the other kind. Then there was a board fence, and on the other side of it there was a vacant lot where a building had burned down. Now it was just hard earth with pieces of cement and charred wood and broken glass, and weeds growing on it.” But, for a group of kids in the un-located urban ‘pleebs’ of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Year of the Flood’, this grim patch is school. Here, they’re engrossed in their Predator-Prey Relations class one day, and stumbling on the corpse of a woman the next, her dumped body still bearing the glossy green scales of the costume that once glistened as she swung from the trapeze in the strip joint next door.
‘The Year of the Flood’ makes for uneasy albeit enthralling reading, and not just because both the city and society depicted in it are, but for a few glinting exceptions, beyond ugly. What’s really unnerving is that they’re so familiar. And that’s just why Margaret Atwood’s ‘Year of the Flood’ is so potent, why the Canadian author’s crown as one of the most important writers of contemporary fiction remains fixed 40 years after she published her first novel, ‘The Edible Woman’: her apocalyptic visions are too close for comfort for us to ignore.
Defying critics’ attempts to crack the bones of her work and fold it neatly into a single, constricted literary genre (in her case, Science Fiction), Atwood once told The Guardian that “science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen,” and, in ‘The Year of the Flood’, Atwood’s speculative muscles are given a damn good flex. The novel’s ‘waterless flood’ epidemic mows mankind down in a tidal wave of airborne ferocity, and the reactions of its characters to that event, each other and the world that it creates holds a distant mirror to the reader and our reality. Reflected are real-life recent health hysterics and individuals’ behaviour in the light of them, plus the tales – both heroic and horrific – that still float on the wake of modern-day disasters such as 2005’s New Orleans floods.
Preachy? Undoubtedly some will see it that way, but at least Atwood can’t be accused of not putting her messages into practice. The tour that accompanies ‘The Year of the Flood’s publication has been a carbon-neutral, veggie-vowing, community-centric, eco-conscious green sweep, with local performers joining Atwood to bring the book’s characters and their songs (yes, you read that right…) to life at each stop. If you missed it, the author has been chronicling the trip, its trials and its triumphs at her blog.
Whatever messages readers absorb from Atwood’s tales, they’re always coated by a tasty narrative dripping with juicy characters to help them slip down more easily. A post-graduate pole-dancer with a penchant for wearing feathers, a woman who flits from her horrific burger-flipping job to defending a fortress in the shape of a top-end spa, and the man who makes it his job to save mankind from itself – these are the people who act as the eyes, ears and mouths of ‘The Year of the Flood’. The fictional foreboding that they dish up in turn adds Atwood’s voice to the likes TckTckTck, Greenpeace and Climate Rush, the active chorus hoping to inspire us to reassess the choices we make, through protest or performance. Atwood, as always, does it by the book.
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